A Deadly Education: Sharp character insights, fantastic originality

A Deadly Education by Naomi NovikA Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

I honestly had a very hard time with the beginning of Naomi Novik’s newest novel, A Deadly Education (2020). But based on my experience with her prior work, I kept going and though I don’t think this novel nears the strength of ones like Spinning Silver or Uprooted, I was happy I did.

El (short for Galadriel) Higgins is a student at the Scholomance, a sort of sentient, no-professors-here, boarding school for sorcerers. Students have various tracks of magic, the school presents them with lessons, supplies, and space. Which sounds nice and all, save that the school is filled with lots of monsters (called maleficaria or “mals”) of varying sizes and danger, and so opening up, say, a cabinet in a lab or taking a book off a shelf in the library might see you maimed or killed. And that’s the “good” day-to-day danger. At graduation, the seniors end up in the basement and have to fight their way free of a sea of the oldest and most dangerous maleficaria. Between the daily problems and the big graduation day, as El says, “Most of the time less than a quarter of the class makes it all the way through graduation.”

El herself is powerful, but her power comes from the ability to use other people’s lifeforce, and that, and other reasons, means she hides her abilities from her classmates. She’s a loner and has convinced herself (true or not) it’s by choice. Meanwhile, one of those classmates, the super-powerful Orion, decides it’s his job to keep an eye on her even as he’s saving hundreds of their classmates. Eventually El gets pulled into a circle, though she makes it as hard on herself and her classmates as possible, even as they hurtle toward the near-suicidal graduation “ceremony.” The question is, can she survive both her new “friends” and graduation.

As noted, I had a hard time at the start of A Deadly Education. El’s voice was too YA, too forced-snarky for me. And the first third of the book is also heavily (overly I’d argue) expositive. So I wasn’t enjoying the voice or liking the character, and the plot was constantly be interrupted by info dumps. Thus my problem.

Past the first few chapters, though, the snark starts to get toned down, the explanations are either behind the reader or more lightly dropped in, and it felt (though I can’t swear this is actually true) as if the book moved out of YA style/tone/vocabulary into more adult territory (as vague as that seems and as unintentionally dismissive of YA as that may sound). As El takes her tentative steps out from her circle of one, Novik shows a wonderfully deft manner in presenting true-to-life young anxieties. I could have done without the romance element, but outside of that, the relationships are warmly and realistically portrayed, with each of the characters deepening in tenor and richness.

The plot offers up lots of suspenseful moments and culminates with an exciting and costly battle. Along the way, Novik also drops in some pointed social criticism to add a bit of depth, as well as some lighter and laugh-worthy moments to balance out the darker, more serious aspects. And I absolutely loved the school itself, its oddness, its sense of truly wild magic, its many wonderfully original quirks, none of which I’ll spoil here. Believe me, if you think you’ve seen everything there is to see in a “magic school” story, you haven’t. This take is all Novik.

A Deadly Education still was a bit too YA for me (though I think it will be hugely enjoyed by younger readers and deservedly so), though it certainly grew on me past the first quarter or so, its sharp character insights and fantastic originality rewarding my perseverance.

~Bill Capossere

Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik

When I first got my hands on a copy of A Deadly Education, I knew that if it was like any of Naomi Novik’s other novels, I wasn’t getting any sleep that night because getting to the end of the story would be far more important. And, happily, I was right!

Readers might have a hard time initially warming up to our narrator, El Higgins (don’t you dare call her by her given name, Galadriel), who’s managed to survive everything the terrifyingly lethal and incredibly amazing Scholomance has thrown at her by dint of hard work, a bottomless supply of snark, and a “weapons of mass destruction” level of magical talent. El hasn’t made it this far by playing nice and making friends, and the world certainly hasn’t made that option available to her, thanks to racism or other, equally odious, kinds of bigotry. It’s almost like the magical and mundane worlds are pushing her to become a practitioner of evil magics (a “maleficer” who exploits “malia,” in the book’s parlance) just to see how horrible she can become.

Thankfully, El has a soul and a strong desire not to harm others, but that doesn’t mean the Scholomance is taking it any easier on her. There are no teachers per se at this school, as magical lesson-sheets tend to appear out of thin air and textbooks can hide themselves, but students are still expected to learn enough to keep themselves alive until graduation day, at which point their biggest concern is surviving the hordes of magical beasts (“maleficaria”) who are all-too-eager to chomp them up. Survival means possibilities for success in one of the magical enclaves spread out around the globe, or at least the chance for a life mixing up ointments and running meditation clinics for non-magical folks. That’s if the endless void the school is magically suspended in doesn’t somehow kill them, or if a fellow student doesn’t do them in, or if the smaller mals infesting the school don’t turn the students into snacks, or if their very schoolwork doesn’t end them.

If you don’t complete a shop assignment on time, your unfinished work will animate on the due date and come after you with whatever power you’ve put into it. And if you try and get around that by not putting anything into it, or doing it wrong, the raw materials you should have used will all animate separately and come at you. It’s quite a solid teaching technique.

Equally unfortunately, El has the major headache of a silver-haired Chosen One boy from the New York enclave: Orion Lake. His over-enthusiasm for rushing into situations and tearing mals apart without a second thought has caused more problems than he can comprehend, and has absolutely not endeared him to El in any way. But through happenstance and a level of interference that provoked a lot of questions in my mind about the nature of the Scholomance, El’s social circle gradually expands; good thing, too, because her junior year rapidly becomes too dangerous for her to handle without extremely serious consequences.

In a lot of ways, A Deadly Education is the far more realistic antidote to all those happy-shiny-sparkly magical school books in which the Chosen One is amazing and wonderful and completely steamrolls over anyone else’s ability to learn anything because the Chosen One soaks up all the time and attention that should be allocated to the other students. Orion Lake might mean well, but he doesn’t see the negative effects of his actions, which El and the other members of their class constantly have to clean up after. And although Lesson One of the Scholomance is a compact book, Novik manages to work in commentary on class, privilege, discrimination, and a thoughtful cost-benefit analysis of personal agency. I was completely hooked by El’s voice, by her frustration at a lifetime’s uphill battle just to be herself, and her suspicion-evolving-into-something-else as she hesitantly allows other students to be a part of her life. And then, right at the end, Novik casts everything into doubt, making me gnash my teeth (really!) and hope fervently that the next book will be coming out soon. I’m so excited to see what lies in store for El and the others!

~Jana Nyman

Published in September 2020. I decided that Orion Lake needed to die after the second time he saved my life. Everyone loves Orion Lake. Everyone else, that is. Far as I’m concerned, he can keep his flashy combat magic to himself. I’m not joining his pack of adoring fans. I don’t need help surviving the Scholomance, even if they do. Forget the hordes of monsters and cursed artifacts, I’m probably the most dangerous thing in the place. Just give me a chance and I’ll level mountains and kill untold millions, make myself the dark queen of the world. At least, that’s what the world expects me to do. Most of the other students in here would be delighted if Orion killed me like one more evil thing that’s crawled out of the drains. Sometimes I think they want me to turn into the evil witch they assume I am. The school itself certainly does. But the Scholomance isn’t getting what it wants from me. And neither is Orion Lake. I may not be anyone’s idea of the shining hero, but I’m going to make it out of this place alive, and I’m not going to slaughter thousands to do it, either. Although I’m giving serious consideration to just one. With flawless mastery, Naomi Novik creates a heroine for the ages—a character so sharply realized and so richly nuanced that she will live on in hearts and minds for generations to come.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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